Wednesday 14 August 2019

All the First Minister’s men

Imagine if sometime in mid-2014 we had discovered that Alex Salmond had been accused of committing a serious crime in 2013. What sort of effect would this have had on the independence referendum? Imagine too if between the alleged crime and the summer of 2014 the SNP Government had made an inquiry into the events, but that this inquiry was so flawed that Alex Salmond had been paid more than £500,000 pounds. Would this have made a difference to the Yes Campaign?

What if Boris Johnson a few months prior to the EU referendum had allegedly committed a serious crime. Imagine if a few days prior to the referendum we had found out that the police were investigating this crime, but that the Leave campaign had botched an internal investigation into Mr Johnson’s actions. How many percentage points would Leave have lost owing to this revelation just before polling day?

 But what if we had found out about Mr Johnson’s alleged crime only now, three years after his side had won the referendum. I wonder how Remain supporters would react. They have complained about the supposed lies that Vote Leave made. But what if Vote Leave knew way back in 2016 that Mr Johnson might have committed a crime, but somehow this information was never made public at the time. I think all of us whether we voted Leave or Remain would want to know why.

Scottish politics turns on two events. If the SNP had not won an overall majority at the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, we would not have had the independence referendum in 2014. If there had not been the long campaign for Scottish independence, leading to Yes getting to 44%, we would not have had the subsequent SNP dominance of Scottish politics. Imagine if Yes had lost by a few more percentage points. If Yes had won, for example 38% then, we would have been told that support for Remaining in the UK was overwhelming. For a very long-time support for independence was in the twenties and thirties. Imagine if in the summer of 2014 we had discovered that Alex Salmond allegedly committed a crime in 2013 and that a flawed Scottish Government investigation had cost the Scottish tax payer £500,000. How many percentage points would the Yes campaign have lost?

Amber Rudd said during the EU referendum that she would think very carefully about taking a lift home with Boris Johnson. The implication was that Johnson was something less than a gentleman. But what if Mr Johnson had been accused of a crime involving women. Would Amber Rudd have used this to suggest that he was still less to be trusted? Imagine the various debates that took place in the summer of 2014 between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling. If we had known about Salmond’s alleged crime that took place in 2013 how would these debates have gone? Would the Scottish public have trusted a leader who was due to stand trial? We all, of course, believe in the presumption of innocence, but we also tend to prefer political leaders who don’t end up in court. Donald Trump was condemned for just talking about groping women. What if the police believed they had enough evidence to convict him in a trial?

If we had known what we do now in 2014 it is likely that Mr Salmond would have had to resign both as First Minister and as head of the Yes Campaign. Who would have taken over? It is obvious that Nicola Sturgeon would have been in charge. But the Yes Campaign would still have been fatally damaged. The problem with Watergate was not so much the initial crime, but the cover up that followed it. In the summer of 2014, everyone would have been asking Sturgeon what she had known about Mr Salmond. After all, the SNP in 2014 was a team made up of people who had known each other for years. Had there really been no whispers at all. Had the various witnesses and victims not told anyone in the SNP and had those people really not told Nicola Sturgeon?

The revelations about Mr Salmond’s alleged crime and the subsequent flawed investigation by the SNP Government, would have finished the Yes Campaign in 2014. If we had known, then what we know now Yes would not have come close to 44%. The Pro UK side was not robbed of victory, but we were robbed of the overwhelming victory which would have killed off independence.

As I have argued elsewhere, I don’t see how you can prove one way or the other what did or didn’t happen in private six years ago. A botched investigation whether by the police or anyone else leading to large sums of money being paid to a defendant would appear to make conviction still less likely. But in the course of proving guilt or innocence beyond a reasonable doubt at some point we are all going to have to find out who knew what and when. Is it really possible that the SNP First Minister and head of the Scottish Government knew nothing from 2013 to 2018? When we first heard about Mr Salmond’s alleged crimes, was it a complete surprise to Sturgeon. But if Sturgeon did know, when did she first know? How did she find out? Was there an attempt like Nixon’s to cover up?  The SNP might have been decapitated in 2013 or 2014. If Salmond feels the need to bring down more than himself, the SNP could be leaderless again. Who then would take them to the promised land?